British Columbia is Canada’s third largest province and its westernmost. It stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountains, and is bordered off in the south by Washington, Idaho, and Montana, in the east by Alberta, in the northwest by Alaska, and in the north by the Yukon and Northwest Territories.
Much like its landscape, the province’s climate is varied, depending on the region. The Pacific Coast has cool summers and mild and wet winters, thanks to ocean currents and the shield provided by the high Coast Mountains. The interior is generally drier and has extreme temperatures, producing hotter summers and colder winters. The northeast suffers the coldest winters and is dumped by heavy snowfall.
Geographically, British Columbia encompasses a vast territory measuring 366,255 square miles (947,800 square kilometers) – bigger than almost every country in Europe. But only 4.38 million people live in the province, the majority of whom cluster in the southwest. Half of B.C.’s entire population, in fact, is found in the Greater Vancouver area. This means a lot of empty space! Literally, B.C. has hundreds of parks that cover millions of acres of wilderness, making the province a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts and a refuge for all kinds of wildlife. With such numbers bunched together in a corner and the Canadian Rockies creating a natural barrier between B.C. and the rest of the country, it’s no wonder the province has developed lifestyles and attitudes that have more in common with California than with Canada.
Native tribes once lived prosperously in the Pacific Coast and had a highly developed culture, expressed in wood carvings, canoe-crafting, and various other art forms. Many examples of wood carvings, especially the crafting of totem poles, have been carefully preserved and are still practiced today.
Because of the isolation created by the province’s diverse and rugged terrain, ten distinct indigenous groups developed in B.C., each with their own languages and cultures and some of them highly sophisticated and exclusive to the province. Unfortunately, suppression by government and missionaries, and the toll caused by diseases have diminished the indigenous population and watered-down their culture substantially. Today, only a few Native groups still hunt, fish, and live the way their ancestors used to live. Their legacy can be seen in the displays and exhibits of numerous museums found throughout the province.
Every year, there are over 20 pow wows or gatherings of indigenous groups that are held throughout British Columbia. These gatherings are both religious and social celebrations. They were originally underground events in the early 20th century, but became public functions in 1955 after the government passed the Religious Freedom Act. You can attend one of these pow wows during mid-August on the river banks of the South Thompson. The event features lively music and dance along with colorful displays and exhibits showcasing all kinds of arts and crafts.
British Columbia was one of the last areas of North America to be explored by Europeans. The physical barriers of the province’s terrain, mostly its rocky coast and mountains, had something to do with it. The Spanish were the first to venture into the region in 1774. They were followed by British Captain James Cook in 1778 who landed on Vancouver Island and traded with the Indians for furs, which he then sold to the Chinese at a huge profit. News of Cook’s exploits spread, resulting in the renewed presence of the Spanish in the area. Skirmishes between the Spanish and the British ultimately ended in the latter gaining control. In 1792, the British dispatched Captain George Vancouver to map the Pacific Northwest. Around the same time, fur traders reaching the northwest via overland routes began setting up trading posts in the Vancouver area.
In the 1840s, the Hudson’s Bay Company made Vancouver Island its headquarters. The island became a British crown colony in 1849 and Victoria was named its capital. Gold was discovered along the banks of the Fraser River, creating a gold rush that brought thousands of prospectors to the province. To secure the mainland, the British government made it a colony and named it British Columbia in 1858. In the 1860s, the Cariboo Road was constructed, opening up the mainland and facilitating the development of canneries, fisheries, and lumber colonies. In 1866, British Columbia merged with the colony of Vancouver Island. When the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, it struck fear in B.C., prompting it to consider joining Canada for security against an American invasion. British Columbia eventually reached an agreement to enter the Confederation in 1871 upon the promise that a transcontinental railway be built.
The promise was fulfilled by Canada in 1885 and the railway fueled the development of industries taking advantage of the province’s natural resources. Another boost came after the completion of the Panama Canal, which enabled B.C.’s resources to be shipped more cheaply and easily to Europe. Today, British Columbia’s economy, particularly in the Okanagan and lower Fraser Valley area, still depends significantly on its natural resources – fishing, forestry, mining, energy, and agriculture. The growth of tourism in recent years has added another dimension to the mix. At the same time, however, forestry’s long term future is now in doubt. The clearing of rainforests and other logging related activities have not only created pollution problems but also pitted passionate environmentalists against the provincial government.
Carroll, Donald. Insider’s Guide Canada. Edison: Hunter Publishing, Inc, 1996. ISBN: 1556507100.
Simpkins, Mary Ann. Canada. New York: Prentice Hall Travel, 1994. ISBN: 0671882783.
 Simpkins, 197
 Carroll, 37
 Simpkins, 198-99
 Id. at 199
 Carroll, 37
 Id. at 38
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